Tuesday, July 24, 2012
The Magisterial Weight of Theology of the Body
The question of the magisterial weight of various documents and statements of Popes has been an issue in the discussions of NFP on this blog. In particular, some readers seem to argue for an almost-infallible character to be ascribed to Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB). In addition, the concept of “responsible parenthood” which appears in a few very recent papal documents seems to have engendered the idea among NFP proponents that it is an infallible and unchangeable teaching – or at least one requiring some assent of faith.
First, let’s review a very general discussion of the relative weight of magisterial teachings given by Helen Hull Hitchcock in her article The Authority of Church Documents. Here’s an abbreviated list and description of the different types of documents issued by the Holy See, based on Hitchcock’s article (I’ve omitted a couple of her categories; see the article for all the details):
Apostolic constitutions (apostolicae constitutiones): solemn, formal documents on matters of highest consequence concerning doctrinal or disciplinary matters, issued by the pope in his own name. They are published as either universal or particular law of the Church. (Examples: the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium; Constitution on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)
Apostolic exhortation (apostolica exhortatio): a papal reflection on a particular topic that does not contain dogmatic definitions or policy directives, addressed to bishops, clergy and all the faithful of the entire Catholic Church. Apostolic exhortations are not legislative documents. (Example: Familiaris Consortio, on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.)
Apostolic letter (apostolica epistola): a formal papal teaching document, not used for dogmatic definitions of doctrine, but to give counsel to the Church on points of doctrine that require deeper explanation in the light of particular circumstances or situations in various parts of the world.
Encyclical (encyclica epistola - literally, "circular letter"): a formal apostolic letter issued by the pope usually addressed to the bishops, clergy and faithful of the entire Church. Example, Humanae vitae, concerning the Church's teaching on birth control issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI.
Instruction (instructio): explains or amplifies a document that has legislative force, such as apostolic constitutions, and states how its precepts are to be applied. (e.g., Liturgiam authenticam, on liturgical translation, an Instruction on the correct implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.)
Institutio: instituted arrangement or regular method, rules (as in Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani).
Motu proprio (literally, by one's own initiative): a legislative document or decree issued by the pope on his own initiative, not in response to a request. (Examples: Apostolos Suos; Misericordia Dei.)
A reader of this blog, in his own research on the topic of papal infallibility, consulted a number of sources, including (but not limited to): Dr. Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma; Father Michael Müller's work, God the Teacher of Mankind: Or, Popular Catholic Theology, Apologetical, Dogmatical, Moral, Liturgical, Pastoral, and Ascetical, Vol I: The Church and Her Enemies; and Monsignor G. Van Noort's Dogmatic Theology, Vol II: Christ's Church. He has provided me with this valuable summary:
Theologians have derived four criteria for determining the infallibility of any statement made by a Pope.
1. What the Pope says cannot be new, because "the Holy Spirit was promised to the successor of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine".
2. The Pope must be speaking "in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority".
-- This means that the pope is not infallible in his opinion, nor in his conversation, nor when writing a book of theology as a private doctor, etc. In general there are certain forms of communication which are considered, and for the most part, have always been considered by their very nature forms of communication in which the Holy Father exercises "his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority". Some of these forms are encyclical letters, consistorial allocutions, apostolic letters, and apostolic constitutions.
3. The Pope must be clearly defining "a doctrine concerning faith or morals".
-- "A doctrine", i.e. a singular issue on faith or morals is defined; therefore an entire catechism can never be considered protected by the charism of papal infallibility no matter how strongly worded the Pope recommended a catechism to be used for learning and teaching the Faith.
4. The Pope must clearly indicate that this definition is "to be held by the whole Church".
-- This has usually been held by theologians to be clearly indicated by an imposition of a penalty for not holding to the definition, e.g. "should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema."
-- Also, the concept of the whole Church is to be understood as not just geographical throughout the whole world, but also temporally throughout the span of time; hence the fact that such papal declarations are "irreformable". This also means that exceptions granted for a particular group, or for a particular time are not infallible. Therefore, an indult for communion in the hand is not to be considered as a practice protected by the infallibility of the Holy Ghost because the Pope granted an official indult.
Now, TOB is the result of John Paul II’s thought which developed well before he became Pope; and this philosophy was expressed primarily through a series of Wednesday audiences. This means that it is primarily his own thought, and is not an explicit expression of Church teaching that has any binding authority on the entire Church. Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI’s pre-papal writings are his own thought, and even the books that have been published since he became Pope, such as
Deus Caritas Est [sorry, it's been pointed out that that IS an encyclical; I was thinking of the books Pope Benedict XVI has written about "Jesus of Nazareth", "The Apostles" and "The Church Fathers"), do not carry magisterial weight. Certainly, a
pope’s thought and teaching are to be respected and given due consideration,
but since the Holy Father is not infallible in all of his teaching and thought, we are entitled to consider
whether his words reflect the constant teaching of the Church.
In the case of TOB, the criteria noted above are not met in other ways. For example, TOB denies a hierarchy of ends to marriage, placing the “unitive” end on the same level as the procreative end. This flies in the face of centuries-old Church teaching that has been reiterated by many fathers and doctors of the Church; it is a “new” teaching. In addition, author Andrew McCauley has raised a number of points regarding problems with John Paul II’s views of sexual morality and concupiscence in his pre-papal writings, as well as the lack of internal consistency in TOB (see Crossing the Threshold of Confusion, Chapters XI and XII). I won’t go into the details here, but McCauley presents ample evidence which you can read in his book if you so desire.
The bottom line is that we are allowed to – and should – question any aspects of TOB that cannot be shown to have some continuity with the constant teaching of the Church. The same would be true of any document that discusses multiple subjects.
Randy Engel, in her work John Paul II and Theology of the Body: A Study in Modernism gives a number of reasons for her opinion that TOB is not Catholic, including these:
its ‘theology’ is man-centered, not God-centered;
it has abandoned the perennial teachings of Scholasticism in favor of novel contemporary philosophies including Existentialism, Phenomenology (the philosophy of consciousness), and Personalism;
it contradicts the traditional teaching of the Church concerning the ends and hierarchy of ends of marriage;
it promotes the sensuous over the spiritual;
it leads us away from Christ, down the road of Modernism.
These are serious problems.
I think it is clear that TOB certainly does not meet the standards outlined at the beginning of this post for “infallibility”; in fact, the problems reviewed here indicate that it does not really carry any magisterial weight at all – it is John Paul II’s personal thought and philosophy, and does not necessarily reflect the mind of the Church.